Also known as Japanese horseradish, the wasabi plant is in fairly scarce supply.
Dr Sean Kitson, a scientist and radio chemist, wants to change that and is ramping up his production of three wasabi varieties – Mazuma, Duruma and Green Thumb – grown in climate-controlled conditions under glass in Northern Ireland.
Through a partnership with vegetable growers and packers Gilfresh, Dr Kitson’s company Wasabi Crop Ltd, forecasts reaching commercial levels by next year.
His ultimate aim is to sell wasabi back to Japan where it originates and offer the “real deal” to UK chefs who struggle to get hold of authentic wasabi. Through an online shop, wasabi leaves and stems are already available, but it’s the rhizome that has the best flavour, according to Dr Kitson, and it takes around two years to grow.
“We need to educate people that much of the time, they will be eating fake wasabi as many of the restaurants and sushi bars use the stuff in the tubes because the real thing can be very difficult to get hold of,” Dr Kitson tells PBUK.
“If it is not grated in front of you, then it’s not the real deal. I’d like to offer this dimension to chefs and consumers.
“This is partly what I’d like to do at the London Produce Show where I will have three big plants so people can see what they look like. I’d also like to leave one behind at Grosvenor House which they can keep and show off to clients coming into the hotel. I hope the chefs there will also be interested in it.”
Wasabi production in County Armagh started off in polytunnels but now Dr Kitson is increasing the glasshouse cultivation in a site with Gilfresh that is around 6,400 square meters.
“Plantwise we should be able to get to around 80,000 in the glasshouse and our target is to fill it. The idea is to supply rhizomes, leaves and stems all throughout the year so we will stagger the growing.
“I believe there are only two growers in Europe, ourselves and another company in England. We’ve been lucky to have a partner like Gilfresh which has all the infrastructure, packing and distribution channels and so on and we are fortunate to have a great relationship with them.”
Dr Kitson says wasabi can be extremely difficult to get hold of even in Japan as complex agriculture laws restrict production, pollution complicates the growing process and the younger generation of growers are not really coming on board with the crop because it is very labour intensive.
“It’s a medicinal plant as well with lots of health attributes associated with it. The reason why they sit well with sushi, raw fish and meat is because it has antibacterial properties.
“When you put it in your mouth and crunch it all up, the enzymes which are released, called allyl isothiocyanate, have medicinal properties.
“I think there is so much more potential for this crop. We’re trying to be innovative with our growing and keeping sustainability in mind.”
Dr Kitson will be on the Invest Northern Ireland stand with Gilfresh, on booths 217, 219, 221, 223, on June 8. Other Invest NI exhibitors include Mash Direct, Hughes Mushrooms, Wilson’s Country and Datos.
Michelle Charrington from the food and tourism division of Invest NI, tells PBUK the reasons why the organisation is taking part in the London Produce Show and Conference for the third time.
“Invest NI is exhibiting primarily to showcase some of our top quality Northern Ireland manufacturers and service providers and to meet visitors from within the UK and around the world,” she says.
“Great Britain is an important market for Northern Ireland suppliers of all sizes. In 2017, the stand will feature potatoes, mushrooms, prepared vegetable dishes and even wasabi grown in Northern Ireland.
“This will be our third year at the show and we find it a great way to keep in touch with existing customers and industry pals from across the industry and to forge new contacts. From relaxed networking at the cocktail reception, to informative seminars and panel discussions, culminating in the show itself, we welcome the opportunity to pursue new business leads for our client companies.”